I don’t like being lost. I’m too nervous and too timid to appreciate the thrill of disorientation. When I returned to campus as a sophomore last fall, I reveled in the comfort of the familiar. I knew with confidence where each new step would take me, and when bewildered freshmen approached me for help, maps clutched to their chests, I gave them indulgent smiles and pointed them in the right direction. With amiable condescension, I’d watch them scuttle off to their next ice cream social in Ticknor, and feel relieved—I that I would never be that lost again.
Or so I thought. Just one month later, I was robbed of that confidence. Pressed to make some big decisions, I discovered I had no idea what I was doing, or where I was going. I felt stressed about grades, I was in all the wrong student groups, and I still didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. The feeling of this indecision—which I had been so comfortable with as a freshman—started to frighten me. Fear festered into unhappiness. All of a sudden, I was the one who was lost. I was the one who needed a map.
I was not alone in my struggle; mental health issues are far from uncommon on our campus. During the 2007-08 school year, 20 percent of Harvard undergraduates reported experiencing emotional distress. But its prevalence, however, does not make it easier to talk about. Depression is still an alienating experience; students who struggle with it often do so alone. Mental health problems continue to slip under the radar, because not all of us are comfortable speaking up about them. Too often, a student must reach a critical breaking point—for example, failing in a class —before others realize that their friend needs help. Help is available at Harvard, but it takes courage to ask for it. In our fast-paced, competitive culture, it is hard to admit when we’ve lost our balance. If Harvard wants to make strides towards better mental health, we’ll need to make an institutional commitment to vigilance, and build a community that’s willing to listen. But these changes should not be limited to the administrative and support functions of the University; in addition, we as students will need to remember that when we feel lost, it’s all right to ask for directions.
Harvard’s Task Force on General Education declared in its report in 2007 that “the aim of a liberal arts education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to disorient young people and to help them find ways to reorient themselves.” In and outside of the classroom, Harvard students are encouraged to explore the unexplored, to excavate the unfamiliar, and to learn in our wanderings through terra incognita just how limitless our learning can be.
The result is that a lot of the time, we feel off balance. As students, we’re entitled to feel uncertain, about what we know and what we want, but at the same time, it can make us feel anxious. At first, that sense of disorientation is fine––exhilarating, even. As a freshman, it was exciting to have preconceptions overturned, to wade through post modernist ambivalence for the first time, and to come out the other end with more tempered skepticism. It felt liberating to be “undecided”, not just about concentrations, but more broadly, about what I wanted to do in life. But by the end of last term, the impulse to reorient had already kicked in. All of us face high expectations here—from our families, our professors, and most often ourselves–about what we should be doing at what time and where. In short, we cannot afford to be uncertain.
As students, we’re entitled to feel uncertain, about what we know and what we want, but at the same time, it can make us feel anxious. Soon, the impulse to reorient kicks in. All of us face high expectations here—from our families, our professors, and most often ourselves—about what we should be doing at what time and where. We cannot afford to be uncertain. As such, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many Harvard students struggle with mental health issues. Ours is an unforgiving environment, even for the hardiest of minds. Our challenge is that we experience so much that is disorienting in our lives, in a culture that demands us to be goal-oriented. All these simultaneous pressures would be enough to make all of us fragile. For those who arrive at Harvard with mental health issues, or have other reasons to be vulnerable, our high-stress environment can only be exacerbates their deep set anxieties.
Sadness can be hard to articulate, too. Our task now should be to offer more channels for students to do just that. Last term, I didn’t realize I was depressed until I told someone I was. I felt estranged from friends and family. I worried all the time. I lost interest in activities I used to love, and started sleeping for longer and longer periods of time. Even then, I didn’t understand that I needed help until I said the words, “I’m unhappy,” and someone listened.
I wish now that I had the chance to reach out earlier. I was not alone in experiencing the so-called “sophomore slump”, and although Harvard recognizes the difficult transition students experience when they leaving the Yard, most sophomore advisers will focus their conversations on academics only. Mental health concerns remain unsolicited and unarticulated, locked under embarrassed reticence. While students can feel comfortable asking for advice about classes, an advising conversation might not seem like the right time to bring up depression.
We need to remember, however, that it is always the right time to speak up about mental health. We all have reasons to feel overwhelmed and unbalanced—it’s what our education is about—and to overcome these struggles, we must first name them. Four months after I first checked into Mental Health Services, I’m feeling happier. Like others, I took a difficult detour. But I spoke up. Someone listened. And now, I’m heading in the right direction again.
Maia Usui ’11 is a history concentrator in Cabot House. She helped coordinate Mental Health Week.